Saturday, July 23, 2016

Is the latest Jagger child a vanity baby?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 22.)

Mick Jagger is becoming a father again, and the first question has to be: Why?

He’ll be 73 when the baby is born. By the time the child gets to the age when he or she might appreciate having an active Dad around, Jagger’s likely to be getting pretty decrepit. He almost certainly won’t have the energy that a child demands and deserves.

If it’s a boy, Jagger will be pushing 80 about the time his son will start wanting to kick a football around or go for bike rides. If it’s a girl, Dad may be too old and infirm to take her to her first school disco (assuming, that is, that she would risk the embarrassment of being seen with a geriatric father).

He’s unlikely to be much help when the poor little rich kid enters the turbulent teenage years. And as a British female academic wrote this week about her own experience of having children with a much older man, there are other risks – such as the ageing father having little patience with a demanding, noisy kid, and of tension over generational differences in attitudes toward child-rearing.

So whose purpose is served by this late-life fatherhood? Not the child’s, I fear.

I’ve heard it said that Jagger’s wife, American ballerina Melanie Hamrick, shouldn’t be denied a child just because she happens to be 43 years younger than her husband.

Perhaps that’s a valid argument. Yet I can’t help wondering whether for Jagger, this will be a vanity baby – a child conceived so that he can enhance his reputation for virility and perpetuate his image as a rocker who defies old age.

He may be afflicted with the same peculiar form of male vanity that led Hugh Hefner, at 82, to marry a woman 60 years his junior. According to one report, Hefner is past the point where he can perform sexually, but appearances must be maintained.

Jagger is a complex personality who inspires mixed emotions among those who know him, but one constant seems to be that Mick comes first.

I recently heard Kim Hill interview American journalist Rich Cohen, who has written what sounds like an interesting and insightful book about the Rolling Stones called The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones.

Cohen said he liked and admired Jagger, but his comments reinforced the impression that the pouting rock god is ruthlessly ambitious and single-minded.

Jagger and his bandmate Keith Richards elbowed the original Stone, guitarist Brian Jones, out of the way when he was seen as an impediment to the band’s success – although to be fair, Jones had become increasingly difficult as he lost control of the group.

Jagger didn’t even attend his old friend’s funeral, claiming contractual commitments forced him to fly to Australia to play Ned Kelly in a woefully misconceived film. But his behaviour was consistent with the Mick-first rule.

Cohen noted that Jagger and Richards were equally hard-nosed in the way they treated their loyal keyboard player Ian Stewart, “the forgotten Rolling Stone”.

They allowed him to be sacked because he didn’t fit the band’s image – and although Stewart continued to play on Stones records, including some of their biggest hits, he was never acknowledged as a member.

With Jagger as CEO of the multi-million dollar business that was the Rolling Stones Incorporated, business trumped loyalty.  

Then there was his 60s girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. In her autobiography she wrote that Jagger didn’t want her acting career to distract people from him. There it is again: Mick first.

The other interesting thing about Jagger is that his entire public life has been a pose. In fact you could say he’s perpetrated the most audacious fraud in the history of pop music.

A white boy from a comfortable middle-class home in the outer suburbs of London, he’s spent his adult life singing in the accent of a black man from the mean streets of America’s urban ghettos.

He’s Dartford, not Detroit. His music career has been one long act of mimicry. But the fans are happy to go along with the illusion.

And here’s another thing. For more than 50 years, the Stones have successfully passed themselves off as working-class rebels and heroes of the 1960s counter-culture when in fact they’re hard-core capitalists, as committed to making money as any multinational corporation.

The cynic in me says good luck to them. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the baby who will be born to a man old enough to be her great-grandfather. Kids deserve better. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

My brush with the music publishing industry

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 13.)

It would probably come as a surprise to most people to discover that the song Happy Birthday was not, until recently, public property – not in the United States, at least.

As well as being reputedly the most recognised song in the English language, Happy Birthday is claimed to be one of the most profitable songs ever written, with estimated earnings of $US50 million. Not bad for a simple tune whose composers appear to have made no money from it.

According to Wikipedia, the tune was composed by American sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, but they never claimed copyright. The Happy Birthday lyrics first appeared in print in 1912 and copyright was eventually registered in 1935 by someone unconnected with the Hill sisters.

Since then the music publishing firm that owns the rights – initially an outfit called the Summy Company, but since 1988 Warner/Chappell Music – has clipped the ticket every time Happy Birthday was performed in public.

Not a bad little earner, by any measurement. The music publishers just sat back and watched the money come in.

The only effort expended would have been in enforcing their rights. You can bet they would have come down heavily on anyone who dared perform Happy Birthday in public without coughing up. Music publishers have a justified reputation for defending their interests ferociously.

But I’m pleased to report this racket has finally been brought to a halt. The makers of a TV documentary about the song sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright and won the case.  

I felt a slight tingle of pleasure when I read about the resolution of the Happy Birthday dispute, because I recently had my own little brush with the music publishing industry.

My book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis is being launched this week. In it, I visit 24 American towns and cities that are named in the titles of hit songs (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Is This the Way to Amarillo, Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – you get the drift).

I write about the towns and about the songs they inspired – who wrote them, who sang them, how well they did in the charts, that sort of thing.

It was always my intention to quote some of the song lyrics. Ha! More fool me. I didn’t allow for the hard-nosed nature of the music copyright business and I certainly didn’t allow for the fees demanded by music publishers.

The companies I dealt with were courteous and obliging, but it soon became clear that I was navigating a minefield.

In some cases, ownership of the songs was disputed and I was warned I would risk dire consequences by quoting as much as a line of the lyrics. In other instances, ownership was shared between multiple companies claiming varying percentages of any royalties, and the process of obtaining permission seemed hellishly complicated.

Even where ownership of songs was straightforward and permission from the publishers would have been forthcoming, their exorbitant royalty demands ruled out quoting any of the lyrics. This applied even if I wanted to quote only a few words.

And the more books I sold, the more money I would have to pay. The music publishers would probably have made more from the book than I would.

Yes, I could have risked quoting the lyrics anyway, but song publishers have a history of mercilessly pursuing transgressors.  

The irony is that anyone can go online and find the lyrics of these songs within seconds without paying a cent. But the moment you put them in a book you become an identifiable target. If you haven’t paid up, the publishers are likely to come after you.

That my book is a celebration of the songs, and might even revive interest in some that were in danger of being forgotten (like Saginaw, Michigan), didn’t seem to count in my favour. It’s all about the “ka-ching!” of the cash register.

In the end I agreed to pay for the right to quote one line from one song – a Creedence Clearwater Revival song about the city of Lodi, California. The chapter about Lodi hinged on that one line and would have made no sense without it.

For the rest, I suggested to my readers that they look the lyrics up online. In any case, many of the songs will be familiar to most pop fans of a certain age.  

Even with Lodi, there was more to it than simply paying up. The music publishers insisted on vetting the relevant pages of my manuscript and demanded three free copies of the book which I imagine will never be opened, still less read.

The whole experience left me with a sour taste. It doesn't seem right that wonderful, timeless songs should end up in the hands of grasping corporates that contribute nothing to the creative process and measure the worth of everything in terms of the dollars generated. But there it is.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The new mantra: if it's technologically possible, it must be done

(First published in The Dominion Post, July 8.)

It’s true then. The world really has gone barking mad.

A recent Washington Post article, republished in the Dominion Post, described the writer's habit of watching films and television shows in fast-forward.

“This has become increasingly easy to do with computers and the time savings are enormous,” Jeff Gao wrote. “Four episodes of a show can fit into an hour.”

He did this, he explained, to make his life more efficient.

At first I thought it must be a spoof – a clever satire on the craze for new ways to “consume” online content.  But reading on, I realised Gao was serious.

He hailed the idea of playing videos at twice the intended speed as an example of “technology-changing story telling”.

Here the obsession with doing whatever’s technologically feasible parts company with reason. People like Gao appear to be afflicted by a strange new personality disorder for which psychiatrists have yet to coin a name.

Watching a good film or TV programme in fast-forward would be like eating your favourite food via a stomach tube that bypasses the taste buds. To put it another way, what’s the bloody point?

But Gao is just one small pointer to where the digital revolution seems to be leading us.

I see the future every week in this paper’s technology page, and I don’t mind admitting it scares the hell out of me. The pace of change is increasing at an exponential rate and no one knows where it will end.

The future of civilisation appears to be in the hands of an industry that’s obsessed with innovation and technological advance for its own sake.

Its mantra seems to be that if something is technologically possible, then it must be done. The men leading us into this brave new world (they’re almost always men) don’t appear to waste too much time thinking about the human consequences of what they do and the type of society that might be created as a result.

Technology writers continue to promote the fallacy that it’s all about making our lives easier. This collides head-on with the day-to-day reality experienced by many technology users who tear their hair out navigating unfriendly websites, familiarising themselves with ever-changing nomenclature, keeping track of a steadily expanding number of passwords (always longer and more complex than the last ones, to protect themselves from the opportunist criminals who infest the online world) and fuming helplessly over “upgrades” that they didn’t ask for and don’t want.

One of the least surprising news items of the year so far was a recent “state of the nation” survey by the Roy Morgan research company which found that 67 per cent of New Zealanders feel so overwhelmed by technology that they complain there are not enough hours in the day.

The solution’s simple, you might think. All they need do is cut back the amount of time they waste on Facebook and Twitter or watching videos on You Tube (I plead guilty to that last one).

But this works only up to a point, because even for those who scorn Facebook and Twitter, there’s no escaping the demands of the digital revolution. There’s no opt-out clause.

For all those people who thrive on newness and innovation, and who love nothing more than fiddling with a new device to find out what it can do, there are others for whom the pressure to constantly adapt to new ways of doing things becomes oppressive.

Trouble is, they’re given little choice. The world is so driven by technology that we’re all expected to fall into line.

Increasingly, people who are not computer-savvy are shut out of access to vital services, including those provided by the government. A computer-shy friend recently received a letter from the Inland Revenue Department querying her tax code and advising her to check on the department’s website – a suggestion that was about as realistic as asking her to recite the Koran from memory in the original Arabic.

The so-called digital divide, which was once merely disadvantageous to non-computer users, now threatens to marginalise and isolate them completely. This is the new reality.

Arguably the most powerful people in today’s world are those who control the giant technology companies. They have more impact on our daily lives than any politician, but unlike politicians they are not accountable to us.

We don’t get to vote for them and have no control over them. We just have to hope like hell that their vision of the future doesn’t turn out to be a dystopian nightmare. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Minto had me fooled

I’ve tended in the past to take a charitable view of John Minto. The worst thing I could find to say about him was that his devotion to left-wing causes was so wide-reaching and so passionate that he had become an almost comical fixture – a caricature – in the political landscape.

In a Dominion Post column in 2012, I wrote that I almost felt sorry for him. “His brain must hurt when he wakes up every morning. So many downtrodden people, so many heartless capitalists, so many injustices – which one will he deal with today?” I described him as a compulsive serial protester and said that images of him addressing rag-tag gatherings with a megaphone were one of the few constants in a chaotic universe.

Beneath this mockery I felt a degree of respect for him. There was no doubting the sincerity of his convictions, or his commitment. Besides, a democratic, pluralist society needs to make room for people of every political shade. There might even have been times when I felt Minto had a valid point to make, even if he did himself no favours by coming across as intense and uncompromisingly dogmatic.

Now I realise I’ve been wrong all this time. What caused me to reassess Minto was a column he wrote for the far-left Daily Blog last week on the result of the Brexit referendum.

It reveals him as an unreconstructed Marxist, which is hardly surprising. He uses the tired, anachronistic rhetoric of class warfare – language that I thought had died with the passing of the People’s Voice.  But more tellingly, it’s the language of malice and hate.

According to Minto, the rich have used neo-liberal economic policies to wage a “relentless war” on the working class. This is a grotesque distortion of economic reforms that have lifted more people out of poverty than at any previous time in human history. I’ve known a few proponents of neo-liberalism over the years and while some of their ideas turned out to be flawed, I can’t think of any who were intent on waging war on the working class.

More often their motivation was precisely the reverse. But Minto thinks the interests of the “working class” (however that’s defined these days) would be better served by … what, exactly? The defining characteristic of Marxist governments everywhere has been brutal repression and hardship, usually accompanied by the creation of a wealthy, personality-cult style of totalitarian leadership that mercilessly crushes dissent.  

Minto goes on to say that the British Conservative and Labour Parties have been complicit in the rogering (my word) of the working-class. That’s hardly a new proposition, but again it’s his language that’s telling. He says the political establishment has been used as a front for the “filthy scheming” of the rich.

This is language calculated to incite hatred. It characterises all “rich” people (however that's defined these days) as rapacious and imputes vile motives to people who in all likelihood never set out to harm or exploit anyone.

It gives us a telling glimpse of the bitterness and malice that lurks beneath Minto’s public image as a compassionate, benign crusader for the downtrodden. He apparently sees no irony in condemning people for whipping up fear and hatred against immigrants while himself indulging in rhetoric that demonises anyone whose world view doesn’t correspond with his own.

He goes on to talk about the “greed and corruption at the heart of capitalism”. Well, no one ever said capitalism’s perfect, but even a casual glance at the countries that lead the world for both prosperity and respect for human rights shows that they are all capitalist economies. Perhaps Minto prefers the Venezuelan model – the latest showcase for the command-style economy that he apparently endorses.

In writing this, I’m indulging in a bit of self-reproach. All these years, I’ve given Minto the benefit of the doubt. Now I realise he’s just as twisted, angry and bigoted as every other sad, thwarted revolutionary.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Rogue cops negate the good work of their colleagues

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 29.)

How the police trapped the loathsome double murderer Kamal Reddy was brilliant – an example of patient, persistent and determined police work.

Reddy is the Auckland man who cold-bloodedly killed his girlfriend, Pakeeza Yusuf, because she didn’t want him in her life anymore. Then he used a pillow to smother her three-year-old daughter, Jojo, so she wouldn’t talk.

That was in 2006. Reddy buried his two victims under a bridge on Auckland’s North Shore. It wasn’t until seven years later that their disappearance was reported and a missing persons investigation launched.

Reddy was an obvious suspect but would probably have got clean away had the police not sprung an elaborate trap.

It started with a female undercover officer introducing herself to Reddy as a market surveyor and getting him to complete a questionnaire. That progressed to the female cop asking him to fix a car, then to value a vehicle that was purportedly being used as security against a loan.

The next step involved Reddy being introduced to a male undercover officer posing as a gang member, who asked him to do occasional jobs for cash.

From there the unsuspecting killer was gradually drawn into a web. It was so well plotted and so gradual that it would have seemed an entirely natural process.

Bit by bit, his involvement in the supposed gang was stepped up. He became involved in faked crimes.

He was given trial gang membership, then taken to the Bay of Plenty to sell pseudoephedrine. Later he helped destroy evidence handed to the gang by a supposedly crooked police officer in a set-up sexual assault case.

All this careful grooming culminated in Reddy eventually confessing to one of his gang associates that he had committed the two murders.

It must have been a “Gotcha!” moment for the cops. Hollywood scriptwriters could hardly have crafted a more dramatic script.

Reddy has now been jailed for life with a non-parole period of 21 years – a sentence richly deserved for a singularly callous crime.

Justice has been done. It would have been intolerable if Reddy, having not only killed Pakeeza and Jojo but subjected them to the appalling indignity of burying them in a place where they would lie undiscovered for seven years, with nothing to indicate they had ever even existed, had got away with it.

The circumstances were such that any misgivings about police using entrapment techniques were rightly swept aside. If ever there was a case of the end justifying the means, this was it.

It was good public relations for the police, coming at a time when they needed it. The case of Teina Pora, wrongly imprisoned for 20 years for raping and killing Susan Burdet, is a serious blot on their reputation (and also, it must be said, on the reputation of the judicial system which twice found Pora guilty).

The two cases serve as a reminder that the police are an imperfect human institution, capable of bad acts as well as good. 

The conviction of Reddy can stand alongside other examples of outstanding New Zealand police work, one of which must be the capture of the French government terrorists who blew up the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. That remains a textbook example of smart police work.

Against that, there is a disconcerting record of police behaving badly or failing to properly discharge their obligation to uphold the rule of law.

A shocking example of the former emerged only two days after Reddy was sentenced, when the Independent Police Conduct Authority was sharply critical of an Upper Hutt police sergeant and a police dog handler who arrested the wrong man.

Without pausing to verify the identity of the man – who was 24 years older than the suspect the police were looking for and looked nothing like him – the police officers dragged him out of his house, handcuffed him and forced him to the ground. In the process, he was bitten by a police dog.

When his wife protested, one cop yelled at her and called her a “f***** bitch”. All this was witnessed by the man’s four-year-old granddaughter and by neighbours. Ironically, the man was a former police dog handler himself.

On the face of it, this was a case of two arrogant, out-of-control cops pumped up on testosterone and blatantly abusing their power.

The wrongly arrested man called the two officers incompetent and a disgrace to the uniform. No reasonable person could disagree. In fact most people reading the IPCA report would conclude these men were not fit to be police officers.

A police spokesperson told The Dominion Post that “internal employment action” was taken against the miscreant cops but wouldn’t disclose what form that action took.

Does this encourage confidence in the police? Not at all.

The good PR done for the police by the conviction of Reddy would have largely been negated by the actions of these two incompetent bullies. For that reason alone they deserved to be assigned to the lost property office for the rest of their careers.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Whatever this is, it's not democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post, June 10.)

I’ve always thought democracy is a pretty good sort of system. Not perfect, of course, but as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In other words, it’s the best we’ve got until somebody comes up with something better.

Well, it seems someone has. In Masterton, of all places.

You probably thought, like me, that democracy works because it gives us the right to choose our representatives and to get rid of them if they don't measure up.

But Masterton District Council has decided that’s flawed, or at least not appropriate for Masterton. The council wants to improve democracy by appointing iwi representatives with voting rights to two of its standing committees.

Yes, you read that correctly. They would be appointed, not elected. But like elected councillors they would have the right to vote on matters affecting the rest of us.

Whatever this is, it is not democracy. It’s something else for which we don’t yet have a term. Perhaps we could call it part-democracy or near-democracy or almost-democracy until someone comes up with a better name.

I don’t want to sound alarmist. The appointment of iwi representatives to two council committees isn’t likely to be the end of the world.

The genuine councillors – the ones actually elected by the people of Masterton – would still be in the majority. And it’s possible that iwi representatives would make a sincere attempt to make decisions in the best interests of the entire community. But that’s hardly the point.

Democracy is a package deal. It doesn’t come with optional extras that you discard if they don’t happen to suit you. And the danger is that once you start subverting democratic principles, even with the best of intentions, anything becomes possible.

If there’s no longer a rigid rule that the people who make decisions on our behalf must be elected by us and accountable to us, reformers will soon find other ways to “improve” the system – all in the interests of fairness, of course.

This is how democracy gets undermined – by inches and by degrees. Ultimately someone might decide that voting is a clumsy and inconvenient process and that democracy would be much more efficient if we got rid of it altogether. It’s happened in plenty of other places.

Is it possible that 100 years hence, queues of international visitors will line up outside Masterton Town Hall to gaze admiringly at a plaque that says: “Masterton – the Place Where They Improved Democracy”? Somehow I doubt it.

I understand the worthy intent behind what the Masterton council is doing. In an ideal world there would be more Maori in local government. But it’s fanciful to interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as imposing an obligation on councils to provide seats for unelected iwi representatives.

In any case, democracy already provides the means by which Maori can stand for office. An obvious example is New Plymouth district councillor Howie Tamati, a former rugby league hero.

Tamati is standing down this year. He’s reportedly disenchanted following the defeat (by a referendum) of New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd’s proposal for a separate Maori ward. But the irony is that Tamati has served 15 years on the council, which demonstrates that voters will support good Maori candidates. He’s a living, breathing rebuttal of his own argument.

In Masterton, where I live, there are no Maori councillors. That’s sad in a town where 16 percent of the population is Maori, but it’s dangerous to say it’s a failure of democracy. There are respected Maori figures in the town whom I would happily support if they put themselves forward for election.

And here’s another thing. If I were Maori, I would regard it as patronising and offensive if councillors thought the only way my people could get a say in governance was by being given a leg-up. That suggests Maori still depend on Pakeha patronage.

And I don’t buy the line that Maori have no chance of being elected because Masterton is a conservative, racist town. This is the electorate that elected Georgina Beyer – the world’s first transsexual MP, a Maori and a former prostitute. So the argument that we’re all unreconstructed rednecks here in the Wairarapa just doesn’t wash.

Perhaps most alarming of all is the urgency with which the deal has been rushed through.  A motion that the decision be postponed until after the local government elections in October - surely a reasonable proposition - was overwhelmingly defeated. The council was clearly eager to get the matter over and done with before those pesky voters get a chance to throw a spanner in the works.

The mayor, Lyn Patterson, says the proposal was discussed in last year’s annual plan consultation, as if that discharges the council’s obligation to give the public a chance to object. But hardly anyone reads the annual plan (I certainly don’t) and the council’s decision took most people completely by surprise.

It looks, well, a bit sneaky. But the voters will ultimately have their say – and as Mike Moore famously once observed, in a democracy the voters are always right. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Will newspapers become the new craft breweries?

It’s rare these days to hear about any development in the news media that’s worth celebrating, but the announcement that the Wairarapa Times-Age is reverting to local ownership is a tonic.

After 12 years in what is now the NZME (previously known as APN) stable, the Masterton-based daily paper is being bought by its general manager, Andrew Denholm. My guess is that other local money is involved, although I have no inside knowledge.

The news is encouraging for several reasons. For a start, it represents a tiny reversal of a trend that has greatly diminished the relevance of local papers.

The process of agglomeration by which provincial papers such as the Times-Age were gobbled up in the late 20th century by the two big industry players of the time, INL and Wilson and Horton, was once overwhelmingly positive for the industry.  

It gave small, previously family-owned papers access to capital with which to invest in vital new technology. It brought them into a nationwide career structure that lifted professional standards and it also meant that small papers were less likely to be captive to local parochial interests.

That all worked well while the two big companies remained in New Zealand hands. The turning point came when the Australian outfits Fairfax (which acquired INL) and APN (which bought Wilson and Horton) moved in.

Australian ownership has not been good for the New Zealand print media. Their disregard for the New Zealand way of doing things was never more obvious than when they dismantled the New Zealand Press Association, thus ending a system of news sharing that had lasted more than a century and ensured that newspaper readers in Whangarei and Gisborne knew about things of importance that were happening in Invercargill and Greymouth.

Sharing wasn’t the Australian way, so it was scrapped.

Oddly enough, the only Australian proprietor ever to show respect for New Zealand was the much-maligned Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch had a controlling interest in INL but after one or two early attempts to impose Australian ideas on his New Zealand papers – most notably the ill-advised conversion of The Dominion into a tabloid in the late 1960s – he wisely left things to trusted New Zealand managers such as Alan Burnet and the late Mike Robson.

A defining characteristic of that era was that New Zealand newspapers were run by people who understood and were totally committed to the business of newspaper publishing. That couldn’t be said of the new generation of decision-makers who took over with the arrival of the Australians.

Of course it’s hardly their fault that the industry was brought to the brink of collapse when the online revolution plunged newspapers into turmoil and destroyed the traditional business model. Nonetheless, hard questions can be asked about their response to the crisis.

Both Australian-owned companies dived headlong into a rushed digital-first strategy which effectively required the cannibalisation of their print products. Resources were shifted from print (which made money) to digital (which didn’t, and even now pulls only very modest revenue).

Websites took priority over print. Journalists were required to become “platform-agnostic”. To put it simply, the owners hollowed out their papers to the point where many readers could see little point in buying them. 

Would a New Zealand publisher such as Robson or former New Zealand Herald owner Michael Horton have reacted in the same way? I’m not so sure.

I would like to think that their belief in newspapers, and their realisation that newspapers occupy a unique place in New Zealand life, would have made them more determined to protect and preserve their print products.  I believe they would have explored every possible means of ensuring newspapers’ survival, including putting content behind paywalls instead of making it available free.

Just look at the Otago Daily Times, the sole surviving New Zealand-owned daily. The ODT has survived the industry crisis in a far better state than any other paper, and it appears to have done so largely by sticking to its knitting. Its owner, Sir Julian Smith, is old-school. Evangelists for the online revolution may have sneered at him as a Luddite, but his refusal to panic and join the rush to digital now looks bold and far-sighted.  

But back to the Times-Age. If any newspapers can survive in the new media environment, it will be those that specialise in local news. Not only is local news important to people because it directly affects them in their daily lives (the ODT understands that, too), but it’s also the segment of the market that has been least disrupted by the internet. If you want local news, you must get it from a local provider; you can’t read Masterton news in the online editions of the New York Times or the Guardian, or even on the Radio New Zealand website.

So there’s hope for the Times-Age. Getting the paper printed closer to home would be a useful step. Sadly the Times-Age press was dismantled long ago when printing was shifted to APN’s Wanganui site – a move that diminished the paper’s ability to serve its community because of the effect it had on editorial deadlines. In recent years the Times-Age has been printed in Hastings and even, on occasions, at the New Zealand Herald’s plant in Auckland.

I’m sure the bean-counters found compelling reasons for shutting down the paper’s press, but it had the insidious effect of eroding the sense that the Times-Age was an integral part of the local community. A similar fate has befallen provincial papers all over the country, sending a damaging message to readers and advertisers. After all, if the owners don’t have enough belief in a paper to keep printing it locally, why should readers?

Now Andrew Denholm (who is Wairarapa-born and raised) is not only taking over the Times-Age, but talking about employing more staff. Ironically, his purchase of the paper represents a step back to a time when local papers were locally owned. Who knows: perhaps the newspaper industry will go the way of the brewing business, which has seen a similar move away from nationwide conglomerates to small, often proudly regional operations.

I’m sure Denholm has no delusions about the challenges of bringing the paper back home. But I applaud him for his guts and his belief in the importance of local news, and I’ll be taking out a subscription because I think he deserves all the support and encouragement we can give him.